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Sweet spring parsnips are rooted in tradition

Many hardy vegetables turn toothsome after a hit of frost in the fall, but few besides parsnips can weather a winter in the ground and come out after the thaw at their prime. From the Pioneer Valley to the latest harvest from the Crown of Maine Organic Coop near the Canadian border, the tapered white roots are being harvested as the fields thaw. As chefs have sought them out, the supply has grown. The farmers of northern Maine have been selling them for the last four years, shipping spring-dug parsnips to New England chefs who show off the vegetable's sweetness in soups and purees, and as side dishes after being braised or roasted. Chris Douglass, owner and chef of Icarus in the South End, keeps his focus on local and sustainable produce and meat. As such, parsnips fit right in. The chubby roots are as New England a vegetable as you can get, and one of the few that we do better here than anywhere else.

Nobody wants to go back to the fall harvest once they get a taste of the spring, because parsnips right now are so much sweeter and richly flavored. Their characteristic scent, which somewhat resembles anise, grows milder over the long winter months. Spring-dug roots can even be eaten raw like carrots, but heat unlocks the winter's transformation, releasing a concentrated juice that's like syrup. These are the only roots for making parsnip wine, a concoction that takes months of aging to complete.

''The more pronounced the flavor the better," says Douglass of parsnips. His velvety soup, made from the roots, has a pronounced, slightly intense sweetness. At Icarus, the soup goes to the table with a ''crisp cookie" of browned duck confit, which can become crumbled bacon at home. A little chopped tart apple offers more crunch.

Some cooks cut the center out of the root if it seems too woody. Douglass hasn't had that problem with his parsnips, and the long simmering and pureeing of his soup will defeat the most fibrous roots.

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